Friday, September 5, 2014

In praise of: Peter McLeavey

This morning a courier delivered a package from Booksellers NZ. It contained a signed copy of the NZ Post Book Awards’ book of the year, Jill Trevelyan’s biography of Peter McLeavey, published by Te Papa Press. I won it in a competition on Twitter.  Result!

I was keen to read the book because a) obviously it is good,  b) it covers a part of NZ culture that interests me, c) I admire Peter very much and d) I also like him because he was very kind to me in my year of hell when I lived in Wellington, 1979-80. I spent a lot of time in his gallery. It was an education.

Also, I was curious to see if the book included my favourite painting of Peter. Sadly, it doesn’t. So here it is: 

This is Peter McLeavey as a Nun (1986) by Mary McIntyre, which appears on page 72 of Robin Woodward’s monograph Mary McIntyre: Painter (Whitespace, 2010).

I first saw it at RKS Gallery in Auckland in an exhibition of Mary’s portraits – from memory the Sylvia Siddell portrait, The Post-Modern Birthday Cake (1987) was there; I can’t swear to it but probably Dick Scott in a Shower of Parts (1985) was too. None of these three subjects was entirely thrilled with how they were depicted in these large paintings. (Much later Mary painted me. I got off very lightly.)

Keith Stewart quoted Mary in this Quote Unquote profile: 
“Peter McLeavey didn’t like what I did of him, but then he didn’t pose for me. I decided I would do a portrait of him because I could see that I could do it. I get this feeling that grabs me, an epiphenomenon, and I know. It’s sort of a sense of power, and once I get it I know that if I pursue the feeling I will do a painting the way I want to. 
“I got that with Peter McLeavey. I decided that I was going to paint him because he is such a distinctive person, and I saw quite a bit of him. I followed him around, looking at him, and he knew I had it in mind. He said to me, ‘I hope you are not going to paint my portrait.’ Then I saw him at a party in this nun’s outfit, and he was marvellous. Totally marvellous. He just looked like tough old Mother McSomething-or-other who had taught you at school and cracked you over the knuckles with her stick. A nun from my childhood. My god, he was like it. And of course he was brought up a Catholic. 
“I put the convent in the Rimutaka Hills in Wellington in the background, and Terry Snow’s daughter when she was little. She posed for us and pulled this face, which was perfect. So I put her in. And I gave him this apple for his role. He was the pre-eminent dealer in New Zealand at the time. He still is. He’s a very fine dealer. So I gave him the apple.”

Peter was brilliant at matching a client with a piece they would love and might just about be able to afford. I am still kicking myself for not buying the small Mrkusich work on paper he tried to sell me. It was beautiful – I can still see it – but was more than a month’s salary from my miserable job at the Listener. I could have done it, just about, but chickened out. Idiot.

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